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I had to read J. Peter Freire’s “Harry Potter and the Chair of Peter” several times just to convince myself it was not a parody. But, sadly, no — Mr. Freire appears to be deadly earnest, and in the process helps confirm in the minds of many that Christians are a bunch of literal-minded, ignorant pinheads who are desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere, might be having a good time.
Mr. Freire tries to make the case that the Harry Potter stories are fundamentally anti-Christian and thus morally problematic and spiritually dangerous. He bases this hypothesis on the fact that the Potter stories involve magic, postulates the existence of witches, wizards and other magical beings, and is not overtly Christian. He tries to bolster his case by citing an off-hand remark by Cardinal Ratzinger two years ago, without first determining whether the good Cardinal was even familiar with the books, let alone having read them.
I sincerely doubt that Mr. Freire has read them, or he would have recognized (assuming that his understanding of Christianity is one grounded in the Fathers and the great Christian poets and philosophers, and not merely in mindless biblical literalism) that Harry Potter represents one of the great works of Christian fantasy, the first of the new millennium, and may some day be regarded as equal to both C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or even J.R.R. Tolkien’s incomparable Lord of the Rings. Let us note here that neither Narnia nor Lord of the Rings is overtly Christian (though Narnia more closely approaches allegory than does Lord of the Rings), that both involve magic and magical beings, and that each, in its time, faced criticism similar to that being heaped by Mr. Freire on Harry Potter.
What Mr. Freire does not seem able to assimilate is the way in which fantasy is often the ideal way of transmitting the Christian kerygma to those who might not be willing to receive it in the form of a cut and dried lecture on doctrine (for Christianity is not really about doctrine, but about a new ontological form of life). Moreover, such works of fantasy often provide believers with deeper insights into their faith, and with a reinforcement of their faith that enables it to withstand the challenges of the fallen world.
The secret, Mr. Freire, lies in an exegetical method popular with the Fathers of the Church — typology. Typology differs from allegory in that an allegory is an extended, explicit metaphor, in which “A” stands for one thing or person, “B” stands for another, and so forth, in a manner that precludes alternative interpretations. A typological work, however, is one in which characters, places, events and objects are symbols, but in a more subtle way, a way that admits of alternative explanations or interpretations, but which, ultimately, point in a consistent direction. The Fathers read the Old Testament typologically, seeing in its stories and personalities foreshadowings of the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. Jesus himself used typology in his parables, “puzzling or paradoxical tales” that appear to mean one thing at one level, but mean something quite different at another.
In the case of Harry Potter, all the stories are suffused with Christian symbolism, built into the structure of the “coming of age” story (Bildungsroman) and using, to a large extent, the kind of alchemical terminology that would be familiar to medieval Christians (hardly surprising, considering that J.K. Rowling took a “First” in classics at University). The examples are too great to enumerate here, but those who want a very readable analysis can try John Granger’s Looking for God in Harry Potter (Tyndale, 2004). Professor Granger (no relation, I believe to Hermione Granger of Gryffendor House, Hogwarts Academy) writes from the sacramentalist tradition of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Those of a more evangelical bent can look to Connie Neal’s The Gospel According to Harry Potter (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). Both come to the same conclusion, however: the Harry Potter stories use the milieu of magic to break down the walls of material reality and allow us to see things “as they really are” — precisely the same use that Tolkien made of fantasy (see his seminal essay “On Fairey Stories” for his complete theory). By forcing a suspension of disbelief, the fantasy genre allows us to play with the “big ideas” — and no ideas are bigger than those embodied in the Great Story of fall, sacrifice, redemption and resurrection, which is the divine history of salvation. Mr. Freire should look into Homer, Dante, Virgil and the other great authors, for most of them do the same thing (not that I am comparing Rowling to Dante, by any means).p>Mr. Freire chooses to paraphrase Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. I feel certain that a scholar of Benedict’s caliber, raised in the Great Books tradition, would fully understand what Rowling has done, if he had indeed read the books. Which is why I place little credence in Mr. Freire’s invocation of his name as support for his own rather pinched concept of what suitable Christian literature should be. In his place, I put forth the words of Bishop Auxentios, writing in the periodical The Orthodox Tradition (Vol.20 No.3-2003), who wrote that Christian critics of Harry Potter have “missed the spiritual forest for the sake of their fixation on the magical imagery of the literary trees.” This describes Mr. Freire’s article to the proverbial T. br> — Stuart Koehl
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